It would be difficult to imagine a more heinous crime than the catastrophic explosion of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. We can't imagine the full impact of the shocking loss of the families and friends whose loved ones, including small children, were victims of human madness. We continue to pray for the victims and their families.
What twisted mind could perpetrate such a crime against innocent humanity? Not a foreign terrorist, but a citizen from America's heartland masterminded this act of violence.
Timothy James McVeigh was tried and duly convicted of this sordid crime in a court of law. He has been sentenced to death, and there is little sentiment in favor of staying his execution, now less than a month away. As we approach the first federal execution in our country in more than 38 years, many believe no criminal is more deserving of the death penalty.
Like no other, the McVeigh case tests the mettle of the emerging Catholic view about the inappropriateness of capital punishment. Rational analysis is difficult in the face of the emotion that this man's crime evokes. The "tantalizing" manner in which this is becoming a national media event compounds the task. Yet, in matters such as this, the good of society requires that we rise to the challenge of a measured and larger vision.
Last October, Jesuit theologian Avery Cardinal Dulles traced the history of religious teaching on the death penalty through the ages and demonstrated that the Catholic Church has consistently asserted that the state has the authority to exact capital punishment and, in principle, does so today.
"It is agreed," Dulles said, "that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the state has the authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death."
But what is "appropriate" punishment? This is the question raised for our day by Pope John Paul II. Dulles outlined the four purposes of criminal punishment in general:
- Rehabilitation. The penalty should try to bring the criminal to repentance and to moral reform. (Under certain circumstances this could lead to a return to normal civil life).
- Defense against the criminal. The government is obliged to protect society by preventing the criminal from committing additional crimes. For heinous crimes, the Church favors life imprisonment without parole rather than death.
- Deterrence. Punishment should discourage further violence and crime. We believe life without parole does so.
- Retribution. Punishment should try to restore the right order violated by the crime. A criminal should pay a price for the offense committed. If possible, the victims of the crime should be compensated for the wrong suffered. This does not mean revenge.
Dulles also summarized four objections to capital punishment in our day.
- Wrongful death. The possibility that the convict may be innocent is the more common reason for opposition to the death penalty. A significant number of wrongly accused criminals on Death Row have been proven innocent.
- Revenge not justice. The death penalty seems to fan the flames of revenge (and violence) rather than foster a genuine sense of justice in society.
- Devaluation of human life. Capital punishment contributes dramatically to the devaluation of human life in an escalating culture of death.
- Incompatibility with Christian forgiveness. While pardon does not remove the obligation of justice, capital punishment seems incompatible with the teaching of Jesus about forgiveness.
Even as our Church opposes the death penalty in a case as awful as McVeigh's, we do not question, in principle, the state's right to impose the death penalty. Yet we must oppose the death penalty because the circumstances of our day do not warrant it. Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life), "As a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system," cases in which the execution of the offender would be absolutely necessary "are very rare, if not practically non-existent" (#56).
The Church's teaching about the state's authority does not change, but the state should not exercise its right if the evil effects outweigh the good. In recent times, the death penalty does more harm than good because it feeds a frenzy for revenge, while there is no demonstrable proof that capital punishment deters violence.
Revenge neither liberates the families of victims nor enables the victims of crime. Only forgiveness liberates.
To be sure, we, as a society, must never forget the victims of crime and their bereaved loved ones. The truly honorable memorial is to choose life rather than death.
Most Rev. Daniel M. Buechlein, O.S.B.
Archbishop of Indianapolis
Indiana Catholic Conference
Member Committee on Pro-Life Activities
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
April 2, 2001